Enjoying face to face groups again

A few months ago after a bit of a break from face-to-face groups, I walked into a group room where my participants were all sitting ready for me, and I immediately felt at home. While we shouldn’t choose our research methods on the basis of how much the researcher enjoys them, the truth is enjoying your work makes a huge difference to the outcome.


As the group progressed, I enjoyed it more and more.  There was a palpable chemistry between me and the others in the room. I felt that I was learning what I wanted to learn, and I think they felt that they were contributing to something useful too. We also had a few laughs.  I have had similarly satisfying experiences many times before and since.

So, I thought it was worth working out what it is about face-to-face groups that can be so enjoyable and how that sense of enjoyment pays off for the client. I asked some of my friends and colleagues to contribute their ideas.

1.       Individuality - When you meet people face to face, you get a real understanding  of how diverse people are.  That then becomes a reminder that despite the marketing  language of ‘segments’ and ‘markets’, companies sell things to individual people. Individuals make decisions, in that fascinating flawed way that we all do! 

Wendy Mellor -  who is a very experienced social researcher – told me about some groups she conducted where participants were deliberately diverse  i.e.  each group comprised people from all sorts of cultures, age ranges and ethnicities including in one case a guy with bright green hair in a mohawk and covered in tats, all of whom  turned out to be great contributors who bonded well.  Wendy said “You get a very strong sense that you have canvassed the views of ordinary Australians from all walks of life.”   Much of this comes from being with people, seeing how they dress and act, listening to how they express themselves and watching how they negotiate their point of view with the others in the room.

2.       Challenging preconceptions-  For my colleague Suzanne, face to face groups stop us from falling into the trap of thinking in stereotypes. Even the best strategic researcher or marketing professional is not immune to this and it can lead to blinkered thinking and assumptions about target markets. “I love the way focus groups have a habit of upending our preconceptions. I’ll never forget a group in a very low socioeconomic area of Sydney, where a participant compared a packaging style to a Paul Klee painting!”

When I asked my friend and sometime collaborator Amanda L’Estrange what she likes about face to face groups, she talked about that sense of  “hearing it from the horse’s mouth”, when the moderator and by extension the client gets their preconceptions challenged.  When that happens to me, I have a habit of suddenly saying ‘oh I never thought of it like that!’ 

3.       Flexibility – I am  my best as a moderator when I am thinking on my feet. I literally am often on my feet as I walk around showing stimulus material or engaging people in activities, and I think that helps as it gives the room some energy. More than that though is feeling that I can depart from the topic guide for a minute or two to spend time on an insight that has come out of nowhere.  There are other kinds of flexibility too, such as our ability to modify the stimulus material between groups so by the end of the project we are explaining the concept in the best way possible. Clients who allow that kind of flexible moderating get the best research.

At their best, face to face groups can be a fast turnaround, eye-opening experience which leave clients and moderators stimulated, or they can be larger scale explanations of human behaviour which inform strategy for years to come.

While much of this can still take place in the online environment, as with most things in twenty first century life, we are constantly in danger of ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’.  It is important for us, as researchers to have a broad based toolkit, and face-to-face groups still have a stimulating role to play.

If you would like to see this in action, contact Sue to discuss in person how she can provide insight into your products and services.



Tags: Qualitative Research , focus groups